Notre Dame's rover role a perfect fit for 'freak' Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
SOUTH BEND — Ian Book chimed in with a description for Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah before the reporter even finished his question.
“He’s a freak,” Notre Dame’s starting quarterback said of the junior linebacker before Owusu-Koramoah made his first career start in the season opener against Louisville.
Owusu-Koramoah showed flashes of that freak athleticism in practice. He intercepted Book’s passes while covering slot receiver Chris Finke, a task many defensive backs on Notre Dame’s roster haven’t been able to do.
But when asked for an explanation on Owusu-Koramoah’s freakiness, Book went with a simpler answer.
“Just look at him,” Book said. “He has like veins popping out of everything. He’s a freak.
“When he puts it all out there, he can do whatever he wants. I’m excited for him. He has a big ceiling as well. I know that he’s ready to showcase his talents this year. I’m pretty confident he will.”
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Owusu-Koramoah has made his quarterback look smart through Notre Dame’s first three games. Tasked with playing the hybrid linebacker/safety role known as the rover in defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s scheme, Owusu-Koramoah has covered a lot of ground tracking down running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends.
Owusu-Koramoah’s tackle tally has reached 19 through three games, which trails only safety Alohi Gilman’s 21 tackles for the team high. Owusu-Koramoah also is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss.
Owusu-Koramoah played what head coach Brian Kelly called his best game to date in the 23-17 loss to Georgia. Owusu-Koramoah helped limit Georgia from finding big plays in the running game and short passing game. An impressive performance ended with eight tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss.
“He showed some flashes and did some good things against Georgia,” Kelly said. “He made the kind of progress that we were looking for against Georgia. I guess the best way to put it is that the arrow is up after the Georgia game with Jeremiah.”
The arrow on Owusu-Koramoah barely had a direction in his first two seasons at Notre Dame. He sat out his freshman season as a redshirt and found a role on special teams to start his sophomore season last year. But after playing in the first two games against Michigan and Ball State without recording a tackle, Owusu-Koramoah broke his foot in practice, which kept him on the sideline for the rest of the year.
A position switch for Asmar Bilal — from rover to inside linebacker — provided an opportunity for Owusu-Koramoah to take over a starting role. He did so with authority. While the inside linebacker spots — buck and mike — went through a constant rotation trying to find impact players, Owusu-Koramoah emerged as the starting rover. He created a clear gap between himself and sophomore Paul Moala and freshman Jack Kiser at the position.
“It is unmistakable when you watch him, he’s an extremely active player,” Kelly said earlier this month. “Physical, has all the tools. First-time starter, so you can imagine there’s going to be a lot of things that we need to dial in and fine tune.
“Love his energy, love his enthusiasm, and I love that he plays for us.”
Owusu-Koramoah planned to play college football at Virginia. He gave the Cavaliers his verbal commitment in October of his senior season at Hampton (Va.) Bethel.
Late offers from Michigan State and Notre Dame intrigued Owusu-Koramoah, so he backed off his commitment in January to visit both schools. He sided with Notre Dame in a signing day decision that included a staged phone call to Kelly during his press conference.
Walking away from a commitment to Virginia wasn’t easy for Owusu-Koramoah, said former Bethel head coach William Beverley. Owusu-Koramoah had a close relationship with Virginia assistant coach Marques Hagans and staying in-state had appealed to him.
“I told Jeremiah, ‘You have to be happy,’” Beverley said. “At the end of the day, coaches come and go and situations change. But you have to be able to wake up every day and be happy with where you’re at.
“I’m sure he prayed about it. He has a strong core family. They helped him make that decision. He was excited about it.”
Owusu-Koramoah will face the team he was once committed to on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame did not make him available for interviews in advance of the matchup with the No. 18 Cavaliers (4-0).
The Irish targeted Owusu-Koramoah when former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko was hired. He and then-Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea had previously shown interest in Owusu-Koramoah when they were at Wake Forest. He became the first recruit to sign at Notre Dame specifically recruited to play the rover position.
Where Notre Dame’s coaching staff saw value, the recruiting industry saw uncertainty. 247Sports slated Owusu-Koramoah as the No. 21 athlete, a designation for players with unclear position projections, and No. 340 overall in the 2017 class. Rivals ranked him as the No. 40 outside linebacker. Both sites rated him as a three-star recruit.
Playing rover wasn’t much of a stretch for Owusu-Koramoah. He displayed the versatility required of a rover while at Bethel. For the Bruins, he played what they called a joker. Some weeks he would line up as a safety. Other weeks he would line up as an inside linebacker. The Bethel coaching staff even had him rushing the passer as an outside linebacker.
“Just depending on who we were playing and how we were scheming, we’d try to put him at the point where we thought he’d have the most impact,” Beverley said. “The position that he’s playing (at Notre Dame), he actually played that identical position in high school. It’s great to see him excel at the college level and doing what he’s doing.”
Beverley, who first learned of Owusu-Koramoah when he coached against his team at the youth league level, watched the Georgia game on television as his former player finished in a three-way tie for the team high in tackles.
“To see him out there doing what he’s doing, we’re not really surprised,” Beverley said. “Everybody is extremely excited for him. Jeremiah’s a very humble kid. He just had to humble himself and wait for his opportunity. It appears that that’s happening.”
Practices haven’t been easy for Chris Finke.
The graduate student slot receiver typically finds plenty of success against linebackers and safeties on Saturdays. But when he lines up against Owusu-Koramoah with safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott behind them, he knows every inch will be important.
It starts with trying to get past Owusu-Koramoah.
“He’s a tough guy to beat,” Finke said. “He has the athleticism of a safety and the body of a linebacker. Getting around him and then having to deal with either Jalen or Alohi, whoever’s in front of me, it’s a challenge and it’s making me better. It’s making all the receivers better.”
For a quarterback trying to identify mismatches, Owusu-Koramoah can cause uncertainty.
“He’ll come to the box and do what he has to do and then he can go guard a slot receiver,” Book said. “You can’t ask for anything more in an outside linebacker.”
While Notre Dame’s inside linebackers rotated through the first two games, Owusu-Koramoah did most of the work alone at rover. He typically only leaves the field when Notre Dame’s dime defense brings on two extra defensive backs on third-and-long.
Owusu-Koramoah left the field against Georgia to be evaluated for a concussion in the third quarter. But because he didn’t go down on his own — Gilman pulled Owusu-Koramoah down when he appeared to be walking slow and unbalanced — the Georgia crowd booed. Owusu-Koramoah went into the injury tent to be evaluated and remained out of the game until Georgia’s next drive.
Accusations of Notre Dame faking an injury, fueled by comments made by CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson during the telecast, carried into early this week. Kelly strongly defended his players Monday.
“Our protocol is if any player has suffered an injury and they’re not feeling right, we want them to go down,” Kelly said. “We want them to get medical attention.
“We have a medical spotter that is communicating with our trainers, and we don’t want to risk anybody that’s not feeling right. So I’m proud of our guys that they have made sure that that procedure is followed correctly.”
Keeping Owusu-Koramoah on the field will remain important for Notre Dame’s defense moving forward. Kelly has described Owusu-Koramoah’s ceiling as “really, really high.”
That’s because he’s exactly the kind of player defensive coordinator Clark Lea wants playing rover. Being a freak helps.
“He certainly looks the part,” Kelly said. “He has all the physical tools necessary for us to expand on that position.
“He’s a guy that could play the No. 2 (inside receiver) and not have to come off the field and nickel out in some situations. He has explosiveness where he can set an edge and we could blitz him.
“He has all those tools if you’re really defining what that rover has wanted to look like. Look it up and that’s what it looks like.”